Authors before books

It’s unusual for me to know anything at all about an author before first reading a book of theirs, but there are four authors I’ve read who I first knew online, from their blogs, from their presence at The Slacktiverse, or, in the last case, on YouTube.

In order,

I met Kit Whitfield initially in her comments on Fred Clark’s blog Slacktivist, and later in her role as a moderator on The Slacktiverse. She blogs mainly about literature (I’ve mentioned her first-line analyses before). Her two novels, Bareback and In Great Waters, are absolutely excellent. Particularly the latter. See posts 64 and 88 of “I’ve been reading” for my thoughts.

I also met Ana Mardoll through The Slacktiverse, where she commented frequently. On her own blog, she writes about feminism, literature, and other bits and pieces. I’ve mentioned her novel Pulchitrude here before, and also linked to some of her discussions about art and culture. See post 87 of “I’ve been reading” for my thoughts on Pulchitrude.

John Scalzi is a former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He has his own blog: Whatever. He writes about writing (both the process of putting words together and the business of publishing), about the politics of fan-run conventions (particularly controversy in the past few years about the Hugo awards), and about anything else which takes his fancy, which of late has included quite a bit of American politics. I’ve so far read only one of his novels — Old Man’s War —, and I very much enjoyed it and intend to read more in the same series and in others.

John Green is one half of the Vlogbrothers on YouTube (his brother Hank is the other half). He’s also a noted YA author. I enjoy the Vlogbrothers — both their main channel itself and their educational spin-off channels such as Sci Show and Crash Course, so I sought out some of John’s books. So far I’ve read only Paper Towns, which is a fun read. It has a message, of course — all YA books do — but it’s subtle enough. It’s a well-crafted novel.

“Strong Female Characters”

Can a female character be a “brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius”? Well, I don’t see why not, and nor does Sophia McDougall at the New Statesman.

That a female character is allowed to get away with behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem – if you’re MRA minded, anyway – an unfair imbalance in her favour. But really these scenes reveals the underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand.

Another essay on the subject comes from Carina Chocano in the New York Times.

“Strength”, in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of “virtue”. And what we think of as “virtuous”, or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. “Strong female characters”, in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out.

So, what does a real “strong female character” look like? Well, here’s a snippet from Ana Mardoll talking about Disney’s Frozen.

The movie really brings home (especially through the song lyrics, which are just PERFECT) that this Good Girl / Bad Girl dichotomy is damaging to Elsa, and the only way she can really be free is to reject them both. She doesn’t need to be (and fundamentally can’t be) a perfect good girl, but she won’t find freedom by moving over to the bad girl stereotype offered to her by a restrictive society. She’s only free when she throws both of them in the trash.

Also amazing, and very rare: a cursed girl saves herself.

Strong female character? Perhaps.

“Let it Go” Lyrics.

Of course, I can never hear the phrase “Strong Female Characters” without thinking of the iconic strip from Hark a Vagrant (“sexism is over”). Looking for that, I also found a sequel.

TRiG.

The Wick End of Candles at the Close of a Long Night

The Wick End of Candles at the Close of a Long Night was published in the h2g2 Post on the 21st of September 2006. It’s a rather beautiful story by ianhimself. It’s set in Northern Ireland, and manages to be raw and true while absolutely not being a polemic. Also, it’s not at all about what you might at first imagine it to be about.

In Toastmasters, I’ve given thirteen speeches. I did the ten from the first manual, so I’m now a “Competent Communicator”. In fact, I finished them at the end of our last Toastmaster year (that is, the beginning of the summer: our last meeting before the summer break was my last speech from that manual), but I’ve only just officially registered for the CC award on Thursday night. To get the CC award, you need to do ten speeches, each focussing on different skills: gestures and body language, vocal variety, visual aids, persuasive speaking, inspirational speaking, and suchlike. I found those last two the hardest: my default type of speech is the informational: here’s this cool thing I found out about, let me tell you all about it.

That final speech from the CC manual was actually my eleventh speech, as I’d also  given one in a competition. It is possible to count competition speeches toward an award, if you get someone to evaluate them, but I hadn’t bothered. Besides, it was a recycled, polished up and improved version of a speech I’d given before.

In this Toastmasters year I’ve so far given two speeches. The first was from the Entertaining Speaker manual, I think. I don’t actually have that manual, and am unlikely to try it any time soon, but there’s a speech in the back of the CC manual as a taster, and I had a funny story to tell, so I told it. (It was actually about my visit to Reims for a h2g2 meet at the beginning of the summer. That’s a story I must write up for h2g2 one of these days.) I got that speech evaluated, of course, but it won’t count toward an award.

My next speaking award will be the Bronze. The task is to do two complete manuals. Each of these manuals has five speeches. (That’s why I can’t count my entertaining story: I’m not doing that manual now, and if I eventually do, I’ll start it again from the beginning.)

And, at the last meeting, I made my start on the Interpretive Reading manual, reading a story. Namely, The Wick End of Candles at the Close of a Long Night. It went down very well, I must say. (I did get some constructive feedback, focussing mainly on vocal projection, so that’s something I’ll have to work on.)

I don’t think I want to do too many readings in a row, so my next speech will have to be from another manual. Probably Speaking to Inform. As I said, that’s what suits me. If I do a reading as every third speech, which is what I think I’ll try for, it’ll mean I’ll have two and a half manuals done before I get the Bronze. Nevermind. That would mean I could then jump quickly to the Silver.

TRiG.

Film: Calvin & Hobbes

Bill Watterson has said that there will absolutely definitively not be a Calvin & Hobbes film. That’s probably a good thing. I can’t imagine that any such film could be anything less than a travesty. However, there is going to be a film about Calvin & Hobbes and Bill Watterson. It’s called Dear Mr Watterson, and looks like it might be interesting and rather pleasing.

TRiG.

Christian Horror Films: Horrific Christian Culture?

Any time people get worked up about a menace they believe in but can’t actually see – demons, Commies, jihadis, hordes of hoodie-wearing thugs — they’re likely to take it out on the weakest and most vulnerable people in society.
— Andrew O’Heihr, at Salon, reviewing the film The Conjuring.

And this is why I read Slacktivist, because he takes wonderful quotes like that and examines them.

This wholesome demonization of marginalized women is expected to “appeal to faith-minded audiences.” And it does.

Oops.

Here’s Fred Clark on Christianity, horror films, and conservative social roles:

  1. The Amityville Horror is not based on a true story.
  2. The Conjuring reminds us that the only way to stop Satanic baby-killers is to punish women.

This film is a pep rally for a witch hunt. Witch hunts do not lead people toward God. Witch hunts and witch-hunters lead people, instead, toward the lethal notion that it is their job to identify and destroy the enemies of God. The stories witch-hunters tell are never true stories, but the victims those stories produce are all too real. And there is nothing “wholesome” about that.

And so it goes.

TRiG.

The Princess Who Saved Herself: Book?

I’ve mentioned this awesome song by Jonathan Coulton before, when I linked to a video showing schoolkids’ drawings based on the song. And now there’s the wonderful possibility of an illustrated children’s book based on it. Yes!

One of the things I like about this song is that the princess is a hero while being feminine, or not, as she wishes. She never wore socks, but she did wear a silver dress. She did what she wanted to. The illustration for the proposed book shows her wearing a pink dress over torn jeans, which captures the spirit perfectly.

TRiG.

It Must Be Beautiful: Great equations of modern science

My current reading is rather fascinating. It’s actually a reread. I picked it up, along with Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus, in a bookshop in Naas. I was in Naas for a job interview (I’ve forgotten what the job was for, but this must have been a chemistry job before I got into writing code, so a couple of years ago now). I’d not heard of either book before, and both called out to me as books I absolutely had to buy. I’ve read both more than once, so the instinct was a good one.

The concept of “beauty” in a scientific equation is perhaps a tricky one, and not all the equations in this book actually are beautiful. The Drake equation stands out as an odd choice. (For a start, despite its name, it’s a formula, not an equation. Also, it is not, by any reasonable definition, beautiful. It’s an interesting subject, yes, and the article on it is very well written, but the formula is emphatically not beautiful: it’s an ugly kludge.) There’s a different author for each equation, and some talk quite a lot about mathematical beauty, while others seem uncomfortable with the concept the editor has chosen and skip over it quickly, with an embarrassed cough.

The essays on Dirac and Einstein (there are three essays on Einstein) all make a great deal about mathematical beauty, but then so did both of those physicists, particularly Dirac.

I quite liked David’s review on Good Reads and shuttledude’s review on Amazon.com. I agree with both that the writing is uneven, and the style of the essays is very varied, with some focusing directly on the equations themselves and others being more biographical sketches. I also agree with both that Robert May’s article on the logistic map and how chaos theory is applied to evolution, “The Best Possible Time to be Alive”, is absolutely top class: science writing at its best.

I do have a background in chemistry, and perhaps it is for this reason that I disagree with the assertions by David and Helen Joyce that chemical equations don’t count. I think the essay on the ozone layer and the effects of CFCs is perfectly at home in this book, and well written to boot. (There is, of course, real maths in chemistry too, but that’s not what’s covered in this chapter. It is mentioned that the rates of certain reactions seemed inconsistent, which lead to further research, but the mathematics of reaction kinetics (which is calculus) was not explored.)

From reading the reviews, it looks like the chapters are ordered differently in different editions. A few state conclusively that the book opens with the famous E=mc2. My edition, however, begins with an essay arguing that E=hf was actually Einstein’s most important work, even if it was Planck who came up with the equation itself.

The review by William G. Faris of the American Mathematical Society is rather in-depth, and is actually more an expansion on some of the mathematical concepts treated in the book than a typical review.

The authors of the chapters in this volume do a remarkable job of showing how each of the great equations is situated in a broad cultural context. The equation itself is at the center. But the geometry is something like that of a black hole; the actual equation remains nearly invisible to the general reader. One of the privileges of being a mathematician is that one is allowed a glimpse inside.

Is it a strength or a weakness of the book that in many of the essays the equation itself is “nearly invisible to the general reader”? (The Dirac equation is relegated to the notes at the end of the book.) Probably a weakness. The strongest essays in the book tackle their equations head-on. Once again I’ll mention the logistic map, and add Igor Aleksander on the Shannon equations. Next to those two I’d place the other biological entry, John Maynard Smith talking about evolution and game theory. And then I’d put the essay that other reviewers felt was out of place, Aisling Irwin on the Molina-Rowland chemical equations and the hole in the ozone layer.

A review by American Scientist, quoted in the book itself, praises specifically Christine Sutton’s essay on the Yang-Mills Equation (an essay which managed to cover interesting historical and biographical detail, and also tackle particle physics in great detail) and Roger Penrose’s article on the Einstein equation of general relativity.

TRiG.

Kit Whitfield on first sentences

Kit Whitfield has published a large number of analyses of the first sentences of novels. (These really are analyses, not book reviews. They’re involved, detailed and based on a thoughtful close reading of the subject matter. Spoilers, of course, abound.) Her writing is pitch-perfect, and it itself is full of quotable sentences. From Jane Eyre we have, “Some books begin with a flourish, others with a handshake.” The series has covered the two most famous opening sentences in fiction — Pride and Prejudice (“Austen is an angry writer, sometimes a furious one, sometimes even a hateful one — but my goodness, does she promise us the world”) and A Tale of Two Cities (“There is no authority noisier than Dickens, especially when he’s slapping down a rival authority”) — and classics from Nineteen Eighty-Four (“With Orwell, the language is vehemently simple, ideologically simple, a declaration of war against obfuscation and half-truth”) to Anne of Green Gables (“Anne may talk breathlessly and at great length, but the narrative can match her word for word”). Also included are two Terry Pratchett novels: Sourcery and Pyramids (“some books begin with a handshake, and Pratchett takes this a step further: in effect, his first sentences are secret handshakes”).

When she posted an analysis of The Catcher in the Rye I didn’t read it, because at that point I had not yet read the book. I have now, so I went back and read Kit’s post. I think I’m going to have to read the book again now. (“How does Salinger get away with a first sentence that refuses to to talk to us?”) Awesome stuff.

I can even find much of value in analyses of books I’ve not yet read, such as her take on Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co. (I love Kipling’s Kim so I probably should read Stalky and Co.)

The most recent, and perhaps also the best, post in the series is Middlemarch. Wow. Just, wow.

TRiG.